Florida teams quickly turning the page in free agency
The rapid rate of change in the NFL does seem to move quicker all the time, and for proof, one only has to think back to the first week of November last year, and where the NFL's three Florida-based teams stood at midseason. It was a rather sorry spectacle, with Florida existing in a state of pro football disgrace.
The Jaguars were a dismal 0-8 and a full-blown NFL laughingstock under the rookie tandem of first-year head coach Gus Bradley and new general manager David Caldwell, inspiring guffaws and a record 27-point spread for their Week 6 trip to undefeated Denver.
The Bucs were also 0-8 and still reeling from the divisive and distracting Josh Freeman controversy that had engulfed the team in October, crushing any legitimate playoff hopes and putting the jobs of second-year head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik very much in jeopardy.
And then there were the Dolphins, once the state's flagship NFL franchise. Though 4-4, Miami was in the midst of losing four out of five games after its hopeful 3-0 start, and just beginning to feel the full weight and scope of the toxic Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito locker room saga that would define its season.
But skip ahead to this week, a little more than four months later. Given the discouraging backdrops that prevailed in those three NFL markets in 2013, you'd have to say it looks like fresh starts all around in Florida so far. It's too early to hand out most improved awards, but the Bucs, Jaguars and Dolphins have done pretty impressive work in the opening days of free agency and the offseason. And they have every reason to hope and believe that last year's miseries have finally passed.
If there's a common thread to what the Florida franchises have accomplished thus far this year, it's that all three have moved aggressively to improve their rosters while quickly cutting ties to the high-profile mistakes and decisions that helped define the losing culture of 2013:
• Jacksonville wisely ended its failed Blaine Gabbert era this week, somehow coaxing a sixth-round draft pick and another conditional pick out of San Francisco for the quarterback who was just 5-22 as a starter after being selected 10th overall in 2010. Gabbert wasn't Bradley's and Caldwell's draft pick, and there was no further need to let the specter of his struggles loom over the franchise.
• Miami turned the necessary and expected page by dealing Martin, a third-year offensive tackle, to the 49ers for a conditional seventh-round pick on the opening night of free agency. The Dolphins, having already parted ways this offseason with general manager Jeff Ireland, offensive line coach Jim Turner and trainer Kevin O'Neill, won't be featuring Incognito in the 2014 lineup either.
• In major renovation mode under new head coach Lovie Smith and new GM Jason Licht, Tampa Bay this week remade a big chunk of its roster, with the release of elite cornerback Darrelle Revis representing a total repudiation of the centerpiece acquisition that Dominik and Schiano staked last offseason around. For better or worse, the Bucs' new plan proved it would not be held hostage by the past.
If you're scoring at home, that's a first-round quarterback, a second-round offensive left tackle and a premier shutdown cornerback the Jags, Dolphins and Bucs just walked away from, respectively. But all three clubs saw those moves as the way forward, and I can understand how they got there, even in the case of Tampa Bay and their costly one-year rental of Revis. His man-on-man style of coverage wasn't going to be a great fit in Smith's Cover-Two defense, and at his $16 million annually, the Bucs deemed Revis a luxury not worth his price tag.
By now you know most of the names of the free agents Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Miami attracted in recent days, so I'll just touch on the highlights of their personnel makeovers. In particular, I like the touch of Seattle that former Seahawks defensive coordinator Bradley has brought to town with defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons signing on in Jacksonville. Along with adding former Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood, an underachiever in Pittsburgh, the Jaguars' defensive front is being rebuilt with players Bradley believes can boost a Jacksonville pass rush that has finished last in the league in sacks for two years running.
Imagine if the Jaguars can add to their pass rush-in-the-making with either South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack with the No. 3 pick in the draft? Improving upon last year's 4-12 would seem well within reach in Year 2 of the Bradley regime.
Jacksonville also got some useful offensive pieces to work with, signing underused running back Toby Gerhart away from Minnesota and a starting guard from AFC champion Denver in Zane Beadles. Re-signing veteran quarterback Chad Henne to a two-year deal made sense as well, giving Jacksonville a steady hand who can start in the short-term while helping mentor the first- or second-round quarterback the Jaguars may draft. Jacksonville methodically went into free agency to fill glaring needs, and efficiently checked off a bunch of boxes.
Outside of Super Bowl-or-bust Denver, no other team made as many headline-name buys this week as the Bucs, who finished 4-12 last season. Revis and his star power is gone, but Tampa Bay added the most coveted pass-rusher available in former Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson, one of the top-rated cornerbacks in former Titan Alterraun Verner and locked up the most sought-after veteran quarterback option to reach the market in former Chicago backup Josh McCown.
And the Bucs were hardly finished with that haul, signing three more potential starters in underrated Bengals offensive tackle Anthony Collins, Giants tight end Brandon Myers and reserve Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald. All of them should have immediate opportunities to contribute more for Tampa Bay than they did with the teams they left.
Like the Jaguars, the Bucs have been searching for a pass rush forever, and Johnson, though he had just 3.5 sacks last year, is a potential game-changer on that front. His presence should help create less burden on standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and the Bucs defense features two other studs in All-Pro linebacker Lavonte David and safety Dashon Goldson. And Tampa Bay, picking seventh in the draft, could get richer on defense if the multitalented Mack should fall that far.
Miami didn't go for the quantity of free agents acquired by Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, but the Dolphins didn't have to, having made a huge splash in free agency last year on offense (signing receiver Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, and tight end Dustin Keller, while re-signing receiver Brian Hartline). Miami, after all, is closer to being a finished product, having gone 8-8 in 2013, just missing a wild-card playoff berth by one game in the AFC East.
The rebuilding of the Dolphins offensive line -- which could feature four new starters this season -- was job No. 1, and in that regard, Miami's five-year, $46 million rush to Branden Albert, the top-rated available offensive tackle, was perhaps a case of overspending out of necessity. The Dolphins have more work to do on the offensive line, but Albert was a very good start.
On the defensive side of free agency, Miami's new general manager Dennis Hickey has had a good week. The Dolphins lost run-stuffing defensive tackle Paul Soliai to a big-money deal in Atlanta (five years, $33 million, $14 million guaranteed), but they replaced him with a relative bargain in Houston's Earl Mitchell (four years, $16 million, $9 million guaranteed), and then surprisingly were in position to re-sign longtime Miami defensive tackle Randy Starks to a palatable two-year, $12 million deal. So for $5 million less than what the Falcons paid Soliai, the Dolphins nabbed both Mitchell and Starks, a nifty maneuver for the Fish's rookie GM.
Miami also made a couple decent moves in the secondary before free agency officially opened, re-signing veteran cornerback Brent Grimes to a four-year, $32 million contract, and taking a one-year flyer on the oft-injured but talented former Lions safety, Louis Delmas. The Dolphins lost cornerback Nolan Carroll to Philadelphia, and still need help at the position, but fortunately for Miami, the draft is deep at corner.
Just more than four months ago, the football fortunes of the Bucs, Jaguars and Dolphins appeared so differently. Florida's three struggling NFL teams were all in a state of defeat and despair. But the game moves faster than ever, and a bevy of new faces brought in by new decision-makers has helped inspire fresh starts in Tampa Bay, Miami and Jacksonville. So too has this week's process of cutting some high-profile losses and moving on.
In Florida, where no NFL team has been to the playoffs since Miami's trip in 2008, the outlooks have changed rather dramatically in a short span. Now let's see if the results follow suit.